Guest column: Gutting bird conservation law is unconscionable

By David Yarnold – Eight years ago this month the Deepwater Horizon oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico killed 11 men and unleashed the worst environmental tragedy in U.S. history. Now the Trump Administration and some members of Congress are trying to gut the law that held BP accountable for the deaths of an estimated one million birds.

That is unconscionable.

Without America’s most important bird conservation law — the Migratory Bird Treaty Act — BP wouldn’t have had to pay for its reckless killing of a million birds. While the law can’t bring those birds back to life, the $100 million in penalties BP paid under the law is helping restore and protect fragile marshlands, vulnerable beaches, shrinking forests and other places birds need across the Gulf Coast and beyond.

The law was passed in 1918 in response to the runaway killing of birds for fashion, from hats to coats. That voracious industry nearly wiped out Great Egrets, Sandhill Cranes and Roseate Spoonbills. Over the last century, the law has saved millions — if not billions, of birds — from the impact of human activities.

But the law doesn’t only protect those exotic-sounding species. It covers more than 1,000 native birds that Americans know and love. It protects Robins, Cardinals, and Blue Jays in our backyards, Red-tailed Hawks and Great Horned Owls, and the Mallards at your local park as well as rare and declining species like the brilliant Cerulean Warbler.

Birds need this law now more than ever. The rate of potential extinctions appears to be increasing as a result of extensive habitat destruction, collisions with human-made structures, invasive species, pesticides — and yes, oil spills.

Annual bird mortality numbers from industrial causes are sobering:

  • Power lines: Up to 64 million birds per year
  • Communication towers: Up to 7 million birds per year
  • Oil waste pits: 500,000 to 1 million birds per year

Instead of offering our favorite birds more help, some members of Congress and the Trump administration are trying to strip birds of their current protections.

Legislation by U.S. Rep. Liz Cheney (R-WY) would absolve companies of all responsibility for bird deaths in the course of otherwise legal business. In a surprise attack just before Christmas—when it thought no one was paying attention—the Department of the Interior issued a legal opinion that meant industries will not be held accountable for ignoring best practices that avoid killing migratory birds.

Eviscerating the Migratory Bird Treaty Act contradicts decades of legal precedent and bipartisan support from both Republicans and Democrats. Its protections often are beneficial to both birds and industry. And many of the solutions for protecting birds are neither onerous nor expensive.

The law has been instrumental in bringing industry to the table and creating partnerships between companies and conservation groups. For example, a coalition of power and utility companies, Audubon, and wildlife agencies, has come together to identify best practices for preventing bird deaths.

Low-tech solutions exist and can be as simple as covering oil pits with nets and marking transmission lines so they are more visible to migrating birds. Here’s another highly successful, low-tech solution: changing lights on communications towers from steady red lights to flashing lights.

But when industries fail to live up to their responsibilities — as occurred in the 2010 Deepwater Horizon disaster — this law also requires them not only to clean up their mess but to also make reparations.

The $100 million in fines BP was required to pay under the Migratory Bird Treaty Act for the deaths of a million birds is benefiting or creating more than 350,000 acres of habitat. It is helping rebuild wetlands in southern Louisiana, protect beaches across the Texas Gulf Coast and restoring delta woodlands in Mississippi.

These efforts aren’t just for the birds. The health of human communities and economies in these areas are inextricably linked to the health of coastal habitat for protection from storms, recreation, and fishing and other local industries.

With threats to birds escalating, birds need our help more than ever. Now is not the time for Congress, the administration or voters to abandon them.

David Yarnold is president and CEO of National Audubon Society.

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